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    The Organ Donation Process: Where Hearts Come From

    Donors are individuals--usually young to middle-aged people--who are brain dead, meaning that the brain shows no signs of life while the person's body is being kept alive by a machine. Usually donors have died from causes other than illness. They might have been in an automobile accident or victims of homicide or suicide. Whatever the case, donors are tested for underlying illnesses such as HIV and hepatitis B and C.

    Donor organs are located through the United Network for Organ Sharing (UNOS). Because not enough organs are available for transplant, about 4,000 patients are waiting for a heart transplant at any given time. We cannot predict how long a patient will have to remain on the UNOS waiting list, but an average wait is between one to five years.

    Donor hearts are given to patients based on the donor's blood type and body weight, and the potential recipient's blood type, body weight, severity of illness and geographic location. Priority is given to seriously ill patients at a nearby transplant center.

    A heart can be disconnected from a person's circulation for about four hours without losing its ability to work properly. Therefore, time is critical. When the heart is removed, the transplant team puts it in a special cold solution to keep it alive (even though it's not beating) and rushes to the hospital where the recipient is located.